Defence reviews boat sinking

Canberra Times
Wednesday, 5 June 2002

Defence is reviewing intelligence on the "SIEV X" asylum-seeker boat that sank, after newly discovered intelligence reports alerting Australian authorities it was about to sail.

The boat sank on its way from Indonesia on October 19 last year, with 353 people drowned, and the Senate is now investigating why Australian authorities did nothing to find or intercept the boat, despite intensive surveillance and interception of boats in the area at the time.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin has suggested the Government may have deliberately turned a blind eye.

Maritime Commander Rear Admiral Geoffrey Smith initially told the inquiry the Navy "had no knowledge of the boat having sailed" till October 22, days after it had sunk.

But he changed his evidence two weeks ago, admitting there had been at least five separate intelligence reports from Coastwatch before that date, starting on October 14, recording the boat's impending departure, actual departure and overloaded state.

Yesterday, Rear Admiral Chris Ritchie, soon to become Navy chief, said Defence had now discovered still earlier reports, dating back to September 5, when people-smuggler Abu Qussey was reported to be preparing two boats for Christmas Island.

More reports came through on October 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15. They had come from a different source than Coastwatch and did not "materially change anything", showing "considerable confusion as to where this boat departed from, when it departed, how many people were in it", he said.

Rear Admiral Raydon Gates, head of the Defence task force on the children-overboard affair, was reviewing the flow of intelligence.

Admiral Ritchie continued to defend the Navy's failure to look for the overloaded boat, saying it could not search "every nook and cranny and every creek and every port in the archipelago", but had waited for boats to arrive down the two main routes from Indonesia to Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef.

"There was no reason, no call, indeed no right - to send ADF assets into the area where that boat subsequently foundered and disappeared," he said. "We waited for that boat to come through, if you like, the funnel that we'd put together. And that's how we were going to detect it, and that's how we successfully detected all the rest."


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